Feminist Dialogue Starts with “You Can Touch My Hair”

Has anyone ever asked to touch your hair? As a white woman in the U.S., it’s not something I’ve experienced, but if you’re a black woman, chances are you have. For most of the women who attended the “You Can Touch My Hair” public art exhibit on Saturday, June 8th at New York City’s Union Square, the experience was all too common.

The event, inspired by Un’ruly founder, Antonia Opiah’s article, “Can I Touch Your Hair?” was billed as an invitation to explore the “tactile fascination with black hair.” Sensing that there was more to this exhibit than an open invitation to touch various textures of black hair, I decided to check it out. As I arrived at the event Saturday afternoon, I immediately spotted three gorgeous black women holding signs that read, “You Can Touch My Hair.” They were standing in front of a crowd of mostly black women, who were actively conversing with one another on the topic.

While I had come to the event to learn more about this aspect of black women’s oppression, the conspicuous absence of white women seemed indicative of the disinterest in and disassociation with black women’s issues that the feminist movement is notorious for. “You Can Touch My Hair” was performance art that put U.S. gendered race relations on center stage. It did what good art has a habit of doing. It stirred up intense emotions and sparked meaningful dialogue. Through asking questions and conversing with women in the crowd, I got the sense that while having people want to touch your hair is nearly universal among black women, the reactions and feelings to the question are incredibly diverse. Some women didn’t mind as long as it was respectful, even finding it flattering at times. Others felt that their hair is part of their body, and any attempt to touch it is violating and dehumanizing.

Representing the latter viewpoint was a group of women who showed up in protest, holding signs that read “you CANNOT touch my hair.” Some were adamant that Un’ruly’s exhibit was disgusting and demeaning. One protester likened it to a slavery auction block or a petting zoo. It wasn’t hard to see her point. But as a lover of art and nuanced messages, I couldn’t help but agree with those I overheard saying that both groups had the same message. I wasn’t the only one interpreting Un’ruly’s exhibit as a statement about the objectification and dehumanization of black women when people ask to touch their hair.

Of course, however, the exhibit had many layers. It also seemed to be a genuine invitation for dialogue. It was clear that the issue of hair touching is more than just hair touching. It’s about entitlement, privilege and control. When white people (usually women I hear) feel entitled to touch and investigate black women’s hair, it is eerily reminiscent of the historic imbalances of power and race-based abuses that continue today. When white people ask to touch a black woman’s hair (or touch it without asking), they do so without recognizing black women’s experience or understanding the potential impact of their actions. In a society where black women are exoticized and made to exist as the other, a white person’s fascination with their hair can add to the feeling of alienation.

Laurel Macey, a woman who demonstrated in protest, eloquently explained how the question, “Can I touch your hair?” adds another layer to black women’s marginalization.

In speaking to women like Ms. Macey, “You Can Touch My Hair” affirmed what I already knew. It is imperative that white feminists listen to black women. When we shut up and listen, something amazing happens. Walls come down. We begin to understand what it’s like to be a black woman in the U.S. and how race intersects with gender to create an experience vastly different from our own. If, as feminists, we wish to break down structures of oppression, we must understand how that oppression manifests in different people’s lives and how we perpetuate it ourselves. “You Can Touch My Hair” was a step in this direction. It opened a door for dialogue that far too few white women walked through. White women must do a better job at listening to and being allies for black women. In the spirit of race and gender justice, we must recognize our privileges and seize opportunities to gain a better understanding of one another. So instead of reaching out your hand to feel a black woman’s hair, reach out your hand in friendship. The world will be better for it.

This post is cross-posted with permission from the Feminist Friends

Photo via Instagram user HairUnruled.

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